In a poignant memoir published in December, 2014, one father has written a memoir that recalls his battle to shut down Staten Island’s infamous Willowbrook State School, an institution for developmentally disabled children that became synonymous with the mistreatment and abuse of those in its care.
Decades after the institution was finally closed down in 1987, attorney Murray Schneps penned I See Your Face before Me: A Father’s Promise, the story of his first daughter Lara, her life at Willowbrook, and his long battle to shut the facility.
Lara was born in May of 1968 with brain damage and Schneps and his ex-wife Vicki Schneps, co-publisher of The Home Reporter and Brooklyn Spectator, realized it was imperative for their daughter to get help as soon as possible.
“We realized she needed services and quickly looked to find some. However in 1968, they didn’t exist,” Schneps explained. “There were no such programs at all. Now, they can go to regular schools.” Back then, however, the Schneps family could only find one place, a state institution called Willowbrook.
“We took a look at it,” he recalled. “They had a brand new building dedicated to training babies. We were anxious to get her in there. They offered various therapies. We had to use influence to get her admitted.”
Initially, things at the facility seemed to be going well. “They took good care of her from the physical point of view,” Schneps said. “She was never injured, never had diaper rash, so we were lulled into believing she was all right.”
However, the Schneps family soon realized that the facility wasn’t as advertised. “The programs weren’t good. No one there had the ability to conduct them,” he said. “It turned out to be a terrible place. They were experimenting with these people.”
During Lara’s stay at Willowbrook, the Schneps family brought her home every weekend, but received a startling warning one day when they returned. “When we brought her back,” he recounted, “we met with a staff person in front of the building, who said ‘Don’t bring her here or drop her off.’
Determined, Schneps – who became vice chair of the Willowbrook Review Panel — decided to take legal action against the overpopulated space and to find better methods of caring for the mentally disabled. “My goal was to close it, which I did,” he said. “I was and still am a tenacious person. If something has to get done, it’s getting done. I’m a very tough man.”
Decades and much contemplation later, Schneps decided to share his story with the world and self-published the book this past December.
“I started writing the book years ago after my third stroke. I thought it was a good time,” he said. “People had been after me for quite some time (to write it). I was nervous about doing it, but I figured people want to know what I have to write. My kids and grandchildren will be able to read it.” The title was inspired by the Frank Sinatra hit, which he sang to Lara.
Schneps is glad he shared his story. “The reception so far has been terrific,” he reported. “It’s remarkable to me.”
For more information on the book or to purchase it, visit www.murrayschneps.com.